Another Perspective

Rethinking a Libertarian Critique

Outsourcing government roles has its charms -- and its limits.

By 2.2.06

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Writing this week for Townhall.com in anticipation of his next televised special for 20/20, maverick news correspondent John Stossel penned another damning indictment of public education:

At the meeting we watched, lots of important people attended: a director of programs for exceptional children, a resource teacher, a district special education coordinator, a counselor and even a gym teacher. The meeting went on for 45 minutes. 'I'm seeing great progress in him," said the principal."So I don't have any concerns." Well, Gena still had a concern: Her son [age 18 and a senior in one of South Carolina's public high schools] could barely read.

Was Dorian just incapable of learning? No. ABC News did see great progress in him -- when we sent him to a private, for-profit tutoring center. In just 72 hours of tutoring, Sylvan Learning Center brought Dorian's reading up more than two grade levels.

In 72 hours, a private company did what South Carolina's government schools could not do in over 12 years.

Unlike his perpetually bemused, celebrity-chasing co-anchor, Stossel is too smart to take the privatization meme out of education and into areas where it has more trouble. Accordingly, you won't find him comparing the strategic airlift capacity of honorable mercenary firms like Blackwater Security Consulting with that of the U.S. Air Force, for example. His bias in favor of private enterprise is, for the most part, laudable.

A related thought: My friend Bill has long been of the opinion that the proper response to the Islamist attacks on America of September 11, 2001 would have been to have Congress issue "letters of marque and reprisal" that essentially put a publicly-funded bounty on the heads of terrorists like Osama bin Hidin'. It is a source of consternation for Mr. Bill and others who hew closely to the libertarian line (not least among them Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas) that the actual American response involved toppling governments in Afghanistan and Iraq.

I sympathize very much with that viewpoint, but find that relying on letters of marque and reprisal ducks the question of whether the machinery of law enforcement is equipped for conflict with non-governmental but multinational and parasitic entities like al Qaeda. Such letters also impart an undeserved celebrity or notoriety to their targets. In our present situation, they would leave the false impression that democracy's quarrel is with particular individuals rather than with the death-cult-and-fantasy-caliphate ideologies they espouse.

In other words, Bin Hidin' and his ilk don't deserve spots on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list, because -- in an irony that should appeal to progressives but frequently escapes the notice of people on the left -- terrorist motivations matter more to long-term American and Western security than the number of bombings and beheadings any one terrorist is responsible for.

AM I WALKING THE LINE between between prudence and thought crime, with the Inquisition on one side and the ACLU on the other? Indeed I am. As Richard Weaver famously wrote, echoing the scriptural admonition that "by their fruits ye shall know them," "ideas have consequences." In this case, it's theological ideas that have consequences, in large part because many of his followers remain overawed by Mohammed's triple career as prophet, politician, and warlord. It seldom occurs to the alumni of madrassas and radicalized mosques that this dinner-theater parody of Christ's threefold office (priest, prophet, and king) is forever doomed to the off-Broadway circuit because it's miscast and you can't dance to it. Moreover, brave souls who try to hum along anyway tend to attract fatwas from imams most likely to resemble used-car salesmen in the dhimmi and Dickensian mold of characters like Uriah Heep.

While I'm ruminating about the limitations of such antique tools of statecraft as letters of marque and reprisal, it's worth remembering that John Quincy Adams, the underrated sixth president of the United States (1825 to 1829), understood Islamism as well as anyone: "Adopting from the sublime conception of the Mosaic law the doctrine of one omnipotent God, [Mohammed] connected indissolubly with it the audacious falsehood that he was himself His prophet and apostle. Adopting from the new revelation of Jesus the faith and hope of immortal life and of future retribution, he humbled it to the dust by adapting all the rewards and sanctions of his religion to the gratification of the sexual passion," Quincy Adams wrote, too soon to have modern scholars of comparative religion like Karen Armstrong wrinkle their noses in distaste at his blunt and allegedly ignorant speech.

Keenly attentive to libertarian aspects of history as he is, my friend Bill probably knows that colonial privateers played a crucial role in the American Revolution. Richard M. Ketchum's excellent book, Victory at Yorktown recently reminded me that that battle might have turned out differently had three Yankee privateers not attacked a sloop carrying a dispatch warning British admiral Thomas Graves of the approaching French fleet. Admiral Graves never got the message, because the captain of the sloop was forced by the attacking privateers to run aground on Long Island. To save the dispatch, he threw it overboard.

There are any number of other examples of private initiative that helped the public good, but Bill perhaps forgets that even in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century heyday of letters of marque and reprisal, there was widespread recognition of a federal role in national defense. Without such recognition, the Articles of Confederation would not have yielded however grudgingly to the Constitution, and the fledgling U.S. Navy and Marine Corps wouldn't have cut their teeth in fights with Muslim pirates who preyed on shipping off the coast of Africa.

In short (and as Stossel reminds us), the case for abolishing the Department of Education as a cabinet-level bureaucracy remains strong. The case for abolishing the Department of Defense? Not so much.

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About the Author

Patrick O'Hannigan is a writer in North Carolina.